Now that it’s warming up, I thought it would be fun to have a little spring time fun with my horses by doing some trust building exercises. These are great challenges that not only build trust between you and your horse, but build your horse’s confidence as well.
You can do these exercises with a friend to help or by yourself. Whichever you are more comfortable with. Just always be safe. You may find some of these are really easy for your horse and you may find others more challenging. One thing I want you to keep in mind is to not push your horse too fast and scare them. The point of these exercises is to have fun, keep things interesting, and build trust. Pushing your horse too hard and too fast won’t achieve those things. Take your time, be patient, and have fun.
Trust Building Exercises for Horse and Handler
*Graded from Easier to more Difficult
Lower the Head
This may seem silly, but how easily can your horse drop their head for you? Horses usually only lower their heads when eating, drinking, or in a relaxed state. Often when we are working with our horses, their heads are up and eyes are alert. Well, by asking your horse to lower their head is to ask them to relax and trust you. Begin by gently pulling down on the lead. As soon as you feel any give then release and reward quickly. If your horse doesn’t lower their head, then adding pressure incrementally should do the trick. This may require you to be sensitive to any drop at all. Do this until you can ask with very little pressure. I like to ask my horse to lower their head all the way to the ground and really get them to show some relaxation with it.
Tarp on the Ground
This exercise is laying a tarp on the ground and asking your horse to walk over it. This can be scary for some horses at first. Begin by leading them up to it just for the sake of investigation. Don’t put a lot of pressure here at the beginning. Next, try to lead them past it as you walk over it so they hear it make noise. Then, begin asking your horse to put a foot on it and reward them if they do. If your horse balks and backs up, it’s ok. Just keep doing the same thing, working up to the tarp and being patient. The goal is for them to walk over it while not being scared. In my experience, this is not a big deal for some horses and a huge deal for others.
This is a good trust exercise because you are taking away an important sense, which is the horse’s vision. Horses rely heavily on their senses to keep them alive. Therefore, by removing their vision with a blindfold, you are asking for a lot of trust. I wouldn’t do this exercise a lot, but it can be a fun way to build trust.
Begin with small increments by putting the blindfold over their eyes for a second. Then, add more seconds incrementally. I used positive reinforcement for this, but it isn’t necessary. Every time I put the blindfold on, I would click and give him a treat. I did this until he didn’t mind me tying it on and leaving it for a few moments. Don’t tie it until you are sure your horse isn’t frightened.
Horses, in general, hate confined spaces, which is why so many owners have trouble with loading horses in trailers. But by doing this exercise, you will build their confidence with such things. You can be creative with what props you use, but I’m using two barrels here. Begin by placing them a fair distance apart where you can lead your horse through with no trouble or worry. Then, you will move them closer and closer. Your horse may balk, but just like with the tarp, it’s all about preparation. If you are slow and patient with moving the barrels together, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. Finally, move them close enough that even the sides rub the horse and you’re able to walk your horse through without fear. You may even try backing them through for an extra challenge.
Trust goes both ways. Do you trust your horse to stay in one spot if you have to drop the lead for a moment? To teach a stay cue, I like to use a vocal cue. “Whoa” or “Stay” are common. Pick a spot and ask your horse using your cue word to stay. Take a couple of steps backwards, away from your horse. If your horse moves from that spot, back them up and reinforce with your cue word. Keep doing this until you are able to move around him freely. This takes a lot of consistency by making sure you keep your horse at the place you asked them to stay. Practice this frequently to maintain the cue.
This is a really handy thing to teach your horse. Poncho knows to stay on his mark, which is just a piece of plyboard, but you can teach your horse to ground tie too by dropping his lead on the ground.
Begin with holding the tarp and letting the horse investigate it with their eyes and nose. Then, place the tarp on their withers and back. If they are calm while walking and moving with it on their back, then proceed to moving the tarp up the neck. Make sure your horse is calm and not in a frozen state by walking them around. Once, your horse is relaxed and isn’t worried about the tarp, then finish by pulling the tarp over their head. Take baby steps if your horse is worried at all. It can be frightening for a horse when the tarp goes over their head. FYI, a small tarp, works best for this.
Here is another scary object that you can use to work with your horse, an umbrella. Begin by showing the closed umbrella to your horse, letting them see and smell the object. Shake the umbrella slightly away from your horse, letting them hear it make noise. Then, holding the umbrella close to you, not the horse, open the umbrella and let them see it change shape. If your horse is not frightened, ask them to investigate it with their nose and if they point their head towards it, then take it away and reward them.
Be patient and take your time with this because your horse may get pretty worried about this strange new object. It’s important that your horse isn’t tied. If they feel they can’t escape, you can actually do more damage than good. Keep working in baby steps until you can finally open the umbrella fully without reaction. This may take time, but patience is always key.
That’s it! I hope you are ready to try these trust building exercises yourself. If you enjoyed this post, then please share. Also, if you feel like sticking around, be sure to subscribe so you never miss a post.
Let me know in the comments. What was your favorite of these trust building exercises?